The news from the Arctic this week has been all about what’s leaving the Arctic. It’s good news when oil and gas companies leave the Arctic, but it’s really bad news when sea ice leaves the Arctic!!
First, let’s get to the good news. Repsol, an oil and gas company, just announced it’s abandoning 55 of its oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea and plans to abandon the remaining 38 over the next year. In addition, ConocoPhillips, Eni, Iona Energy and Shell have given up more than 350 leases covering more than 2 million acres in the Chukchi Sea. Soon, there will be only one lease remaining in the Chukchi Sea—and additional drilling on that lease is unlikely.
It’s been a busy year so far, and we’re only finishing the first full week of 2013. To start off the new year, here are the top five tweets that attracted the most attention in the Twittersphere over the last week:
1. Trapped killer whales freed by shifting ice
BREAKING: Multiple reports say the 12 killer whales trapped in sea ice in Quebec have been freed by shifting ice: ocean.ly/UPKPtR
A group of killer whales surrounded by ice off the coast of Canada were deemed to have a grim future, but an unexpected shift in wind current moved the ice in a way that allowed them to escape. This surprise happy ending garnered the most attention of our ocean followers this week. This tweet also took away the most favorites.
When you think of the Arctic, you probably think of a pristine area largely untouched by human hands. But even though few people get a chance to see the Arctic firsthand, that’s not stopping our trash from making the journey.
Plastic in the water is the last thing the Arctic needs right now. This past summer, Arctic sea ice melted to its smallest size in the history of satellite measurement. Each year, the amount of Arctic ice (or lack thereof) during summer months stirs up conversations about the health of Arctic ecosystems and potential implications for our global ocean. But Arctic ice is not the only barometer of ecosystem health; instead, we must also take a critical look at what’s below the icy water’s surface.
The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2007 and 2005, the previous record low years. 2012 is shown in blue and 2007 in green. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Credit: National Snow and Ice Dara Center, Boulder CO
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) recently made a preliminary announcement that Arctic sea ice on September 16 had melted to about 1.32 million square miles, or just 24 percent of the surface of the Arctic Ocean. This is the lowest seasonal ice coverage since satellite measurements began in 1979. Although ice should start building back up now as the Arctic heads into winter, any newly formed sea ice will be relatively thin and more prone to melting in the coming summer. The Arctic is our planet’s air conditioner, and it plays a key role in regulating global climate. Its cold air and water help drive atmospheric and ocean currents that regulate temperatures worldwide.
NSIDC scientist Julienne Stroeve said, “Recent climate models suggest that ice-free conditions may happen before 2050, though the observed rate of decline remains faster than many of the models are able to capture.” This means the actual melting of sea ice is happening faster than what recent climate models predict and an ice-free Arctic could happen even sooner.
Today, Alaska Senator Mark Begich introduced important new legislation that would establish a permanent program to conduct research, monitoring, and observing activities in the Arctic. If passed, Senator Begich’s bill could lead to significant advances in Arctic science that can then be used to support decisions about the management of a region that is crucial not only to the people who live there, but to the world.
This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements. The line on the image shows the average minimum extent from the period covering 1979-2010, as measured by satellites. Every summer the Arctic ice cap melts down to what scientists call its “minimum” before colder weather builds the ice cover back up. The size of this minimum remains in a long-term decline. Credit: NASA
“As of Sunday, the Arctic sea ice cover had shrunk to 1.58 million square miles, the smallest area since satellite measurement began in 1979. With the melting season not yet over, the ice will almost certainly contract further in the coming weeks before it begins to re-form.”
Arctic sea ice plays an important role in moderating the global climate. The bright surface of sea ice reflects sunlight back into space. Each year, portions of it melt in the summer, exposing the ocean surface. While the sea ice can reflect about 50 to 70 percent of the sunlight back into space, the dark ocean absorbs approximately 90 percent of the sunlight, heating the water and causing Arctic temperatures to rise even further. This process creates a feedback loop as warmer temperatures cause further sea ice melt. The reduction in Arctic sea ice has far reaching impacts on global atmospheric patterns and ocean circulation. Learn more about the important role sea ice plays in regulating the global climate here.
Here at Ocean Conservancy, we have been urging the government to stop Shell’s Arctic drilling plans and protect this fragile and vitally important region. A green light for Arctic drilling would mean placing an already stressed environment in greater jeopardy, which isn’t worth the risk. The decrease in seasonal sea ice has created the potential for a dramatic expansion of oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters. Currently, there is no adequate technology, technique or infrastructure to respond effectively to an oil spill in icy Arctic waters, and darkness, hazardous weather, or sea conditions could delay spill response for weeks.
Even without a major accident, day-to-day oil and gas operations create significant environmental disturbances. Seismic testing, exploratory drilling, and increased vessel and air traffic associated with oil and gas operations generate noise and air and water pollution, with the potential to affect whales and other marine animals and, in turn, the people who depend on them for subsistence.